A complete report on my return to Malawi in October and November, 2003 would easily run to multiple pages – maybe a short tale or two about the Embangweni School for the Hard of Hearing will suffice!This was my fourth trip to Embangweni, the second with Marion Medical Mission. As always, I go not to install shallow wells but to work as a speech therapist at the School for the H of H. (When I step off the plane in Lilongwe, the total number of certified speech therapists in Malawi rises to 1.) The school is an amazing place; learning and development there are nearly unbelievable and are a tribute to the dedication and hard work of the staff and the students.
Morning chapel is always special and was even more so in 2003 as the bell choirs and older student choir provided introits and several Standard 6 students led worship, including the presentation of the message.
Some of these are young people I first met in 1997 when they were struggling in Preschool 3 and 4 to learn what language is and how to use it to communicate basic needs. Now some of them can use not one but four languages (Chitumbuka, Chichewa, English and sign)! Their poise and self-confidence fill the whole room and it is apparent that some are destined for wonderful things! On my first morning at chapel, Headmaster Edward Mtonga and the rest surprised me with a short ceremony and gifts. Brandina (the first student at the school when it was started), lit a candle to symbolize the light of Christ and of learning, pinned a silk rose on me as a sign of love and presented two containers of student-made ground nut butter to symbolize the need for earthly as well as heavenly food. Touching? Humbling? Exhilarating? You’d better believe it!
Five weeks is not much time to do effective speech therapy, but I gave it a try! My therapy room in the Primary School block is very basic and my stock of supplies limited; I decided to do direct therapy only with the Preschool 1 through 4 students in the hope of establishing some foundation for learning. Not to leave out the Primary School, I spent time in each classroom visiting, teaching and sharing about my home in Colorado and the trip to Embangweni. The kids are always so concerned about the long trip, even though the idea of flight time is hard to grasp. They ask if I have anything to eat and are relieved to find out I do. They would prefer it if I were offered sima, but usually agree anything is o.k. and it is good that I can get a Coke. One girl this year worried about boredom – didn’t I have a video or something to look at? (Where she came up with that….!) Again, relief to find out there is video on the plane.
The exciting thing in the Primary School this year was to walk in on a class involved not in rote learning but in discussion. Standard 6, especially, loves to challenge ideas and the teacher. Mr. Nyierenda does a marvelous job encouraging them to think – something not the norm in many Malawian schools where student:teacher ratios may run 100:1. Across the way in Standard 4, Mr. Chulu also encourages discussion. I sat in one day on a class about water and water sources. Where does water come from? “A shallow well”, one answers. “A bore hole”. “A treadle pump”. “The lake”. “At home, I herd the goats in the hills and I go all day without taking a drink.” “At home, we don’t have these cement floors and I miss the sweet smell of the mud when we smear the floors with water to control dust.” These children are no longer “patients” – as they have been thought of in the villages—they are students eager for learning and ready to take their rightful place in society. It is exciting and humbling to be a part of it.
After four trips, it began to seem as if I’d never been away when I walked each day from Hospital chapel service down the road past the Church, exchanging greetings with others walking along, beside the now-brown maize plots by Mr. Jere’s house and watching the tiny kids make their way to the Nursery School, some lugging backpacks just as they do in the U.S. Then onto the Deaf School grounds – more often than not to be greeted by one or more students wanting to take my pack, camera, bag, whatever happened to be in my hands. Headmaster Mtonga and Assistant Headteacher Mr. Hara assured me that I am now “Headmistress” – and agreed that the title came with a pay raise of at least 100% (still equaling US$ 0.00!) All seemed to be vaguely worried about my advancing years and now refer to me as “gogo” (grandmother). I think it was a compliment during our farewell dinner when Mr. Mtonga said “Most people slow down when they get old, but not Mama Carol – she just goes faster.”
Many of “my” kids now wear solar-powered hearing aids provided by donors through Marion Medical Mission. We were able to fit 25 new aids in 2003; now every student in Standards 1 – 6 and a few of those in Preschool 4 have an aid. The aids are well taken care of, as the kids are told to wear them only for school – never for playtime, especially not outdoors. They have a plastic box for overnight storage and it is common to see aids set outside the classroom on plants or the decorative brick areas for re-charging.
All who visit the Embangweni School for the Hard of Hearing agree it is a special place. The reputation is spreading, as evidenced by a student who recently transferred in from a different deaf school. He is in Standard 6 and argued with his parents until they agreed to let him come to Embangweni. Not only did he want the better education (including training in sign language), but he let it be known that he feels more loved here than he did in the nun-run school. One of the teachers told me the children feel the love here because “we have children of our own”. Kris Dooling (with MMM Team 1) reported that she was told in a remote village that it was “…now all right to have a deaf child because we have seen that they can learn at the deaf school.” Uchindami kwa Chiuta!